Fr. Justin Sheehan, OCSO
2nd Sunday of Lent
Since the beginnings of Lent in the Roman rite, the Gospels for the first two Sundays of Lent have always commemorated the two peak experiences that Jesus had before his Passion and Resurrection. The temptation Gospel of last Sunday and the transfiguration of today are like a pair of companion pictures. On both occasions, the supernatural element is very clearly present; and in both cases, it was not so much for our Lord’s sake as for the sake of those who were with him at the time.
Last Sunday, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil”. Our Lord was seen at his most human, tempted just as we are, although he never gave in to suggestions of evil. This Sunday, “after he had told the disciples of his coming Death”, Jesus revealed himself in a humanity so glorified that divinity shone through.
And in both cases, the manifestation was only for a time. “Then the devil left him” – there will be no other open testing of Jesus until the Passion Gospel of Palm Sunday, when Jesus comes “to a place called Gethsemane”. In this morning’s Gospel, “when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone” – the vision had faded into a less dazzling sunlight.
The second reading this morning explains why it is a grace to hear these two Gospels in succession: “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God. He…called us to a holy life…in Christ Jesus”. Christ is to be the pattern of the Christian life in the experiences he underwent, and therefore we will have hardships to bear, and temptations, but also grace “made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus”. For him, as for us, there will be an alternation in the spiritual life. Sometimes Christ would be dragged down by temptation, and sometimes he would be lifted up, in human fashion, to prove that he really was a human being.
For many of those who are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, there is a long apprenticeship of discouragement, when they are tested by temptations which are not felt as temptations by the rest of us. It can seem as if they will last forever, but they do not last forever. Afterwards, there is an experience of the divine presence, which is even more beyond understanding. And yet this too is only for a time. “It is good that we are here”. Yes, but not indefinitely. There has to be a coming down from the mountain, as the Lord said to Abram in the first reading: “Go forth…to a land that I will show you”. And “Abram went as the Lord directed him”.
If we too are faithful to the Lord throughout our periods of darkness and light, then the effect may be not only on our souls, but also, in some sense, even on our bodies, just as it was the body of Christ which was transfigured. In the letter to the Philippians, St Paul writes that the Lord Jesus Christ “will transfigure our humble bodies, and give them a form like that of his own glorious body”.
Monastic tradition has often taken this quite literally, as a sign that Christ never ceases to pour out the light of the transfiguration on the bodies of the saints, and there are many examples of this in the lives of the desert fathers. When Abba Sisoës was about to die, the monks who were sitting around him saw his face radiating with a light that gradually increased until he gave up his spirit. Then the light became as dazzling as lightning and the cell was filled with the fragrance of incense. And monks have told stories like this over and over again because they correspond to a spiritual reality: the light of the transfiguration extends its power across the ages, and prepares people for the risen life to come.
At this Eucharist, let us give thanks for the Gospel of the transfiguration, and take it as a lamp for lighting a way through the darkness of Lent until the dawn of Easter when the morning star rises in our hearts. And let us make our own today’s Prayer after Communion: “We make thanksgiving to you, O Lord, for allowing us while still on earth to be partakers even now of the things of heaven”. Amen.